The Making of Virtual Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas will return to the public eye like
never before on 9th November 2005, the 52nd anniversary of his death.
Wales’ favourite son, and the poet who commands “do
not go gentle into that good night,” is to return from the
grave in computer animated form. The project undertaken by Swansea-based
animation company iCreate, in partnership with Bvirtual Ltd, invites
a new view of Thomas, and challenges ideas of memory and authenticity.
Constructing the Illusion
The animators’ first point of reference
was a 3D scan of Dylan Thomas’ death mask, which gives an
accurate impression of the poet’s head and face shape at the
time of his death. Using this as a guide the animators created a
3D model of the head using their 3D software, replicating the shape
of the death mask as closely as possible.
Then, using close-up photographs, (a little too
close for comfort) of the skin of a man of similar age and habits
to Thomas, the team began to construct skin of lifelike colour and
texture. Studying minutely one area of skin, they created a 2-dimensional
drawing of it in all its complexity. This 2D ‘map’ was
then wrapped around the 3D model.
The final skin is made up of 10 layers –
10 2D maps, each controlling a different aspect of the skin’s
colour, texture and behaviour under the lights, to get as close
to reality as possible.
The hair was created as a separate object, the
millions of separate strands making it dense and difficult to work
with. This task relied on photographs of the poet for reference.
The most demanding and time consuming stage in
the construction is the animation. Given that there is no moving
footage of Dylan Thomas in existence, the team was forced to rely
on someone else’s performance of the poem for reference. Using
a video recording of the poem as performed by Bob Kingdom, an actor
seasoned in portraying Dylan Thomas, the team study the movements
of the mouth as it makes the sounds.
Having analysed the video and the voice track,
the animators created a series of ‘blend shapes’, depicting
the position of the mouth as it pronounces different sounds. Next
came the painstaking process of ‘lip-synching’, which
involved matching the position of the mouth to the exact sounds,
frame-by-frame, adding increasing levels of accuracy and detail
as the weeks went by. This process demands continual reviewing and
perfecting. Having finalised the movement of the mouth, the process
is repeated for the head movement, eyes, and eyebrows.
Although the computer animation techniques
used are frequently used by the Hollywood film industry, this project
is different from the animation of fictional characters, such as
in film: here, the animators do not invent what simply does not
exist. They begin, instead, from death, and the assumption that
the subject no longer exists. This is a far more complex demand.
The subject has existed, and the animation will be judged by comparison
to the established concept that we know as ‘Dylan Thomas.’
The animators’ task is subtle. They create
the image, but within strict bounds of how it ought to be. The image,
a carefully constructed illusion of life, conforms to this expectation,
tentatively asserting itself in competition for the title of ‘memory,’
encouraging the viewer to believe that it is ‘real.’
But can a ‘virtual reality’ animation really ‘bring
Dylan Thomas back to life’ as the animators hope? Decide for
yourself – join us on the 9th November to see Thomas’
first performance of his most popular poem in over fifty years.
Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
to apply for a place at this limited capacity event.